Approaching renowned composer Jon Brion forLady Bird, her directorial debut, Greta Gerwig didn’t get into the specifics of his many memorable scores, or which of his works was particularly compelling to her. For Brion, this was a breath of fresh air.
Having composed for the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson, Charlie Kaufman, and David O. Russell, Brion is familiar with the pressure to create within the mold of his past works, preferring instead to create anew, without any such “prejudicial” conversation. Hit hard by a “certain very specific, bittersweet feeling” embedded within Gerwig’s coming-of-age story, Brion sensed a kindred spirit in the director upon first viewing of her film, as someone who approaches his own projects in pursuit of a feeling.
Adding his own dimension to Lady Bird, the composer went with a wind ensemble sound reminiscent of a high school band, in its earnestness and bouncy energy, which supported both the sentiment Gerwig sought, and the world Lady Bird inhabits at a turning point in her life.
Below, Brion discusses laying down tracks in his “favorite recording room of all time,” the common thread amongst his many singular film scores, and why he hopes to see Gerwig do “lots of directing.”
When Greta spoke with you, did she mention how she’d come to your music, or her experience listening to your scores?
Other people do that a lot, but she didn’t. She said she liked my stuff, but she didn’t harp on particular pieces of work, and I have to tell you: As a composer or record producer, as in anything, if somebody comes in with that, it’s prejudicial.
It does color the experience, and you always wonder, especially as a film composer, “Oh, dear! Do they want me to make a carbon copy of that?” And if I don’t, will there be some strange dissatisfaction? It’s like that famous moment of Neil Young getting sued by his record company for not sounding like Neil Young. [laughs] Which happens, and really all of that is, they wanted him to sound like one particular project of his.
So, she didn’t do that. Once we met, she said she’d discovered at some point in her life that I was an interconnecting point on many different things she liked, and that she had seen a live show at some point when I ventured out to New York.
To me, that was nice, because somebody knowing the way I perform, I think, sets us up probably for a better working relationship. Because that whole thing is about flying by the seat of your pants, and it’s a more feel-based thing—the idea that you should try and take your experiences seriously, but not yourself, I guess.
I knew she got that. That was nice to hear. When somebody says a certain movie is their favorite, and they want to know all about that director, or they use a phrase like “Hey, can we do something like that in this scene?” Greta was free of that, which endeared her to me.
When you first watched Lady Bird, what did it evoke for you?
I think she perfectly captures a certain very specific, bittersweet feeling in the movie, and it resonated with me very hard. As one hopes when you make stuff, I, as somebody watching it, was able to project situations in my own life into it. It resonated in sympathy with it, that sense of understanding.
That’s part of why I think she’s good, and part of why I want to see her do lots of directing. Because I really thought she kept her eye on the ball—that central underlying sense of dissatisfaction, but still moving forward. It’s a difficult thing, because there are a lot of different feelings involved in that one feeling. I also liked that [while] it has a lot of sharp language, it actually has sweetness and the hope for sweetness as its underpinning.
For me, your score brings forth images of a high school instrumental group playing. Is that a comparison that makes sense to you?
Yeah, absolutely. I grew up playing in school bands—most everyone I know did. My dad directed school bands. One of my thoughts on tonality wasn’t strictly that that’s the sound I related to better in my life, but I really like the sound that’s referred to as wind ensembles. There are no string players, and we don’t hear that sound in movies generally.
If people are referring to a high school band in a movie, it [typically] just means there are some people who can’t play well yet, so it sounds out of tune.
This isn’t that. And yet it somehow captures the mood or spirit of adolescence.
I hope it does, anyway. But I really like that sound, and I’ve always been curious why there wasn’t more wind ensemble in movies. You get loads of it in orchestral scores where it breaks down to just the woodwind section, and that’s always been a favorite of mine when I hear it, and a favorite of mine to do. But I’ve always wanted to do something where it felt orchestral, but it wasn’t using strings.
I did know that early on in the process. I talked to her about it, and I said, “Look, it’s hard to describe, but I think you’re going to like this sound,” and gave her my reasons why, and she understood.
The title sequence has a palpable and interesting rhythm to it. Is that suggestive of the thematic idea you had mentioned—of moving forward in spite of dissatisfaction?
Well, yeah. To me, any of the stuff that works really well has at least two feelings going at once. So, let’s say maybe it has some sad feeling on top, but some momentum underneath.
The main theme is this ascending piano line. Sometimes the wind ensemble plays it, and we started referring to that as a “falling down” quality because the rhythm was pushing it forward. At some point, I had started working—I think before she even came out here, because I had the first theme together—on this thing that, between us, we referred to as “falling up.” I started doing a version of the theme where it goes up a few notes, and drops down, and goes up a few notes, and drops down. I guess it’s sort of like an emotional Escher painting.
That became a little internal engine we could make use of. So, she might even occasionally go “Oh! Could you do the falling up thing?”
Can you explain the jingling piano technique we hear in certain pieces? It’s quite evocative in itself.
I’d been working on some electro-acoustic treatments for piano, involving multiple contact pickups, but the main trick was involving PA speakers at different spots around the room, and also at different spots under the piano. I could essentially make the piano feed back melodiously, not going to squealing feedback. I had some guitar pedals and things as well.
We had a lovely old Rhythm United in Hollywood, the same place Ray Charles’ country and western records were done in. It’s my favorite recording room of all time. We also had a lot of room mics up, so you hear not only the natural piano, but you hear these different effects and things that are then fed back underneath the piano to make the strings resonate.
The room was built for Sinatra, so the reverb chambers are actual rooms, and they sound incredible. You can hear the treated piano sound at the end of the very last thing on the soundtrack, at the very end. You hear what sounds like piano playing simple chords, and a number of tracks of synthesizers, electronics, and mysterious sounds. That’s mostly all the live piano. The last little chunk of time, when you hear things tremoloing in time, all of that was happening in real time, off the piano performance. That’s how that sound is created.
I’ve seen you perform live, playing multiple instruments yourself and looping them into a symphony. Is film scoring typically a more traditional process?
It’s different every time. When it’s right, it has its own motion—there’s not really a “Here’s the order things always happen,” at least for me. I find it’s a combination of you and the director, and that determines how it’s going to go.
Do you ever bring that looping technique into your scoring process?
Occasionally, yeah. All these things inform each other. My record-making always informed how I did looping stuff, and vice versa, just because I like hip-hop and I loved the original [Brian] Eno experiments with all this, and a few people in the ‘60s, like Serge Gainsbourg, or the occasional Beatles tracks that were making use of actual loops. That’s always been an influence on my thought, and some of it absolutely comes back into movie soundtracks.
One cue in the soundtrack is 17 seconds long. Can you expand on the collaboration with Gerwig by which you arrived at the range of different cues we hear?
That’s one thing that is pretty common. People usually have an idea of where they want music, and they are fairly beholden to it. I will oftentimes see the people and go “I know you don’t have music here, but, try this. ” Or, “I know you really think you need music on this scene, but the scene’s really beautiful without it.”
I’ve made these overtures in the past, and they’ve rarely come to fruition. But, in the good cases, sitting there with someone, usually I’ll ask people what they hoped this scene would feel like. And they might go, “Oh, I always felt like this was a very stressful moment for this character, and this other character was oblivious to it, and that’s what it’s actually about.” And I’m like, “Oh! Okay.”
If that made-up example was the case, immediately you could try two things. You could try playing some music that would be really stressful, or you could play some music that’s so against type and so happy-go-lucky that you find yourself in the shoes of the stressed-out person, going “What’s this weird nightmare in which everybody’s being so happy while I’m not?” [laughs]
She took to that immediately. To her credit, she very quickly realized that, “Oh, I don’t have to pretend to speak in musical language to participate.” We usually spent the first part of every evening talking about life and politics, or our likes and dislikes in creative work, and at some point you’d concentrate. She could say what she likes and dislikes, and I could make adjustments. And if the adjustments were right, I could see her getting pleased, and I knew I was on the right track.
While each of your scores is distinct, you can feel your presence behind them. What do you see as the common thread that defines your music?
I actively want to try and experiment with different colors, and combinations of instruments, and different combinations of types of music. That’s endless clay to play with. But if there’s one thing that I think is common ground in my work, and the thing I don’t hear elsewhere, it would probably be that even without lyrics, I think my stuff has a sense of song to it, which I don’t hear elsewhere, as great as my ears are at doing their job.
It’s something that film scores I liked in the past had, that sort of lyrical, vocal quality. The way to get to that is to sit down and play the thing without any filigree. No special sounds, no overdubs—the cleanest possible sound you can have to work on. Just the melody and the chord change, played at a certain tempo, evoke a feeling. And if it does, then I’m fine.
The other stuff is just arranging, and a lot of film scores I hear seem to be about orchestration or soundscapes, which are processes of arranging. They are a creative process, and as a fan of both classical and electronic music, I love both things. But I don’t know—I probably love George Gershwin more.